Travelling in Indian trains. The complete guide

We travelled more than 3000km in the Indian trains between November and December 2018 (winter time in northern and central India), in a backpackers or low budget kind of trip. At first sight it is really confusing, but now we can break into little steps the secrets so you won’t miss any trip.

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The first step to understand how the Indian Railways system works is to learn about the classes available.

  • GENERAL CLASS – the cheapest one and most popular among Indians. The are NO reserved seats. People pile up on top of each other and mainly men travel here. In the ticket counter they refused to sell us these tickets in two different occasions. Be sure of your ability to deal with stressful and strenuous situations before getting into this wagon.
  • S2 – the most economic to travel with a seating reserved place. NO AC.
  • SLEEPER – the most economic to travel with a reserved sleeping berth. NO AC, since we were traveling in winter time, we needed sleeping bag or a blanket and winter clothes. In summer we consider it would be useful to have a sheet, so you don’t lie down directly on the berths; we believe it gets very hot inside. The hygiene conditions vary, but usually are precarious. Indian families travel frequently in this class, therefore you can easily be in touch with locals. It is a cultural immersion. We felt always safe. If you are particularly worried about safety, we recommend you take a long padlock to attach your backpack. You will have to leave it in the floor under the ground berth, won’t be able to put it close to you. Anyway we never used any padlock.

    Sleeper Class wagon.
  • AC CLASSES – there are different options with growing services included and the prices more than double. We never traveled in these classes. The comfort offered seems, nevertheless, to justify the price which is still cheap. We consider that, if you are on holidays, it can be a good option.

Sleeper class was the one we travelled the most. The “Upper berth” is the best choice. At 6 in the morning, Indian people start chatting, want to seat and sellers stroll the corridors. In the upper berths you will be able to sleep for another 2 hours. Make sure to request this one when you buy the ticket.

A winter night in the Sleeper Class…
…we looked like eskimos! During the night it got really cold.

So how can we buy the tickets?

Below, we explain the three counters you should pay attention to in the railway stations.

  • TOURIST OFFICE – designated to inform and sell tickets to tourists, it is available in main stations.

    Tourist Office in Varanasi train station.
  • ENQUIRY COUNTER – this is the place to ask all the questions, available in every station.
  • RESERVATION COUNTER – this is the place to buy tickets with reserved seats/berths. Don’t mistake this with the Booking counter where general class tickets are sold, without reserved seat.

Before travelling to India, we read and were warned that travelling by train would be impossible, it was always sold out. In fact, for the most economic classes it might be difficult to get tickets on the same day, even though we could get it for the routes Amritsar to Haridwar and Jaisalmer to Jodhpur. The alternative is to buy the “Tatkal“, which literally means “immediate”.  These are urgency tickets that become available just the day before the trip, at 10am for AC classes and at 11am for non-AC classes. Have a fee of about 100R. Can be bought at train stations or through agents or the hostels, these intermediates usually charge 100 or 150R commission fee.

2 in 1. The tickets from Amritsar to Haridwar for the both of us were printed in the same one, since we bought them together.
Tatkal from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. They recommend to carry an original ID. We were never asked for it.

Nevertheless, we were in Mumbai during New Year and all the tickets were sold out to Goa (Madgaon). It was then we learnt about another alternative! Foreign Tourist Ticket comprises a small cota of tickets just for foreigners. We had to go in person and carrying our passports to Churchgate station to buy these, which were not available at other stations.

Chhatrapati Shivaji station in Mumbai. For its dimension and gothic Victorian architecture, it is one of the most famous across the country.
Chhatrapati Shivaji station in Mumbai. Heritage from the British colony, with gothic Victorian architecture.

The question that must be popping out for you now is how much cost these trips. Below we list the costs of all our train trips in India. Remember that “Tatkal” has a fee of 100R, which we include in the following prices. Each timetable of each route has a specific reference that can be used while searching online; it is mentioned at the beginning of the statement.

  • 🚂 12054 Amritsar-Haridwar 407km, expected 7H5m. 2S class, regular ticket > 185R.
  • 🚂 12370 Haridwar-Varanasi 776km,expected 13h5m, delayed 2h. Sleeper class, Tatkal (urgency ticket)  > 525R + online fee 25R + agent’s commission 100R. In Rishikesh we bought it from Red Chili Adventure agency and found them very transparent and professional.
  • 🚂14853 Varanasi-Agra 650km, expected 12h50m, but we had a delay of 9h! Sleeper class, Tatkal > 450R + agent’s commission 150R.
  • 🚂14810 Jodhpur-Jaisalmer 299km, expected 6h30m, delayed 45min. Sleeper class, Tatkal > 305R, we bought it directly from the station.
  • 🚂15013 Jaisalmer-Jodhpur 299km, expected 4h45m. Sleeper class, regular ticket > 195R, we bought it directly from the station.
  • 🚂10111 Mumbai-Goa Madgaon 581KM, expected 11h40m, delayed 2h. Foreign tourist ticket > 575R, we bought it directly at Church Gate station in Mumbai. For reference the regular ticket was 390R, therefore this tourist cota had a fee of 185R.

Are you on a rush? If you are counting the minutes, the Indian railways can become nervous-wrecking. When hopping in, arriving late is almost a certainty. Not to mention, that departure delays are the rule. If you buy the ticket in the station, check if the SMS system is available, since they will text you in case of delayed departure. The APPs below can help you keeping up to date with that matter.

To help us search timetables, routes, prices and tickets availability we used the following APPs:

  • IXIGO was the APP we used the most, user friendly and allows:
    • to search timetables and routes through “train tickets”;
    • check the status of our ticket through the “PNR status”. “PNR” is the “Passenger Name Record” with our details in the Indian Railways database;
    • check the status of our train through “running status”;
    • search “trains by number”.
      IXIGO has different options available related to the Indian Railways.
      The option “train tickets” allows to check timetables, train number, availability of tickets per class. On December 26, 2018, from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur there were tickets available in Sleeper Class.

      Nevertheless, for that day, there were no tickets left from Jodhpur to Mumbai, not even Tatkal. “WL174” means there are 174 people in “WL – Waiting List”.
  • IRCTC is the Indian Railways APP. Allows the same options. Anyway we found it less user friendly and there are frequent advertisement pop ups, which makes it hard to use.

The stations have available the “Waiting Rooms”, generally designated for passengers of higher classes, but we always used it with sleeper class tickets. Usually foreigners are allowed in without any questions. Climatized conditions and WC, that may have shower, are provided. It is useful if you want to save one night in a hostel or in case you start or finish your trip in the middle of the night.

At night Indian train stations get busy. You won’t feel alone.

In India food is always around the corner and in trains and train stations this is the rule as well. Nevertheless, hygiene conditions are even more precarious during the travels, reason why we took our own food.

Travelling by train in India is a cultural immersion.

As we mentioned before, taking a train in the Indian sub-continent is a trip within the trip and a wonderful way to have a cultural immersion. We travelled with families and locals, some would offer us food, others shared their experiences in lively conversations for hours. We hope this article makes it easier for you to have this experience.

Have you travelled in the Indian trains? Do you have tips or stories to share? Write it in the comments below. This is our P4Kto.

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